Many folks sit around dreaming of the latest camera, lens, tripod or other camera gear, knowing the right acquisition will take their photography to new heights. In reality, photographers have been making great images for well over 100 years with equipment most of us would describe as “primitive” at best.
There is a rather famous back-and-forth between Edward Weston and Ansel Adams from the 1920s, as I recall, where Weston is asking about good lenses. Adams replied that almost all lenses made “today” are of sufficient quality to take excellent photographs. Even looking back on images made by Matthew Brady during the Civil War, they are surprisingly sharp. Of course, sharpness is not the only reflection of lens quality. Image fidelity, tonal qualities, and separation are also important, to name a few.
A Light Capturing Box
Cameras and their lenses, when all is said and done, simply focus light onto an image “sensor” whether electronic or film. With all of the incredible advances in today’s modern digital cameras, they are still basically light capturing devices. Though seemingly less complicated, they have actually significantly complicated image capture compared to the old film cameras. Whereas films varied by such things as silver content (and thus speed), grain structure and emulsion materials (coatings), modern cameras have all kinds of controls for manipulating the image as it is being recorded through and after the photoelectric light sensor.
There is no need to go too far off into technical details here, simply to say cameras, whether film or digital, take light from a lens and produce a recordable image. Assuming proper mechanical workings, any camera made today, or 50 years ago, will take “good” photographs when used properly. Gear can make that process easier or more accessible, but it cannot replace the need for the photographer to “see” a great image before he takes the shot. As commonly said, cameras don’t take photographs, photographers make photographs. The whole process starts in seeing something which catches the eye, and moves on to determining what it will take to reproduce in-camera what the photographer is seeing.
In other words, learning how to “see” is far more important than what equipment one uses. I do not believe it is essential for beginning photographers to use primitive cameras, as many photography schools require, but that experience is invaluable in many ways. I started out in photography back in the film days, and while I learned photography using a Canon AE-1, when I began my photojournalism studies we were required to start out with a Diana camera. These were cameras with a single plastic lens element and very little control. Considered a “toy” camera, the use of a Diana camera is much like the modern day use of the Holga camera – simple images with an emphasis on composition. Given the right circumstances and an understanding of such a camera’s limitations, very interesting images can be made.
Here is an example of an excellent photographer who often shoots with a Holga and/or “pinhole” camera (a camera with no lens, just a hole the size of a pin to allow light onto film):
His images are quite a departure from the razor-sharp, over-saturated images so commonly posted on the Internet, but they are nevertheless beautiful and extremely well done. A search of his YouTube channel will reveal additional videos using both Holga and pinhole cameras.
Indeed, inspired by one of his videos using a 1950s era “folding” camera, I purchased a 1929 model Zeiss Ikon 6×9 camera for an incredibly inexpensive price. The image below is from a camera literally 90 years old when taken, and the quality is simply amazing. It’s an honor to bring a camera this old back into service.
We are, in America, easily swayed by advertisements for “new” technology to replace “aging” equipment like cell phones, laptops, and cameras, often with little real upgrades to performance or usability. As I stated above, almost any modern camera and lens combination can faithfully record what is presented to it, but little more. The creativity, the nuance, the little something extra, that happens as Ansel Adams famously said, “12 inches behind the camera.”
In future articles I will examine more about the art of “seeing” and of capturing images which resemble as closely as possible what we are intrigued by as we look at a scene. Every photograph we take (or make!) is an interpretation of what we are seeing, whether documentary style or as a work of art. We each have our own unique vision and interpretation of the world around us, and our goal should be to share that vision in a way that accurately reflects our interpretation.
New Carving Images
I again have the distinct pleasure of presenting carvings by my dear friend, Bruce Smith. If you have not seen his previous work click here. These new carvings are equally stunning in their creativity and execution. Each one tells a story all its own. Take time to study them and enjoy the slice of life they represent.
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” – Pablo Picasso